Republican Government

[Volume 1, Page 119]

CHAPTER 4 | Document 10

John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States

1787Works 5:453--59

But of all the words in all languages, perhaps there has been none so much abused in this way as the words republic, commonwealth, and popular state. In the Rerum-Publicarum Collectio, of which there are fifty and odd volumes, and many of them very incorrect, France, Spain, and Portugal, the four great empires, the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman, and even the Ottoman, are all denominated republics. If, indeed, a republic signifies nothing but public affairs, it is equally applicable to all nations; and every kind of government, despotisms, monarchies, aristocracies, democracies, and every possible or imaginable composition of them are all republics. There is, no doubt, a public good and evil, a commonwealth and a common impoverishment in all of them. Others define a republic to be a government of more than one. This will exclude only the despotisms; for a monarchy administered by laws, requires at least magistrates to register them, and consequently more than one person in the government. Some comprehend under the term only aristocracies and democracies, and mixtures of these, without any distinct executive power. Others, again, more rationally, define a republic to signify only a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws. This, indeed, appears to be the true and only true definition of a republic. The word res, every one knows, signified in the Roman language wealth, riches, property; the word publicus, quasi populicus, and per syncope pôplicus, signified public, common, belonging to the people; res publica, therefore, was publica res, the wealth, riches, or property of the people. Res populi, and the original meaning of the word republic could be no other than a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed; and it had more relation to property than liberty. It signified a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law. This idea, indeed, implies liberty; because property cannot be secure unless the man be at liberty to acquire, use, or part with it, at his discretion, and unless he have his personal liberty of life and limb, motion and rest, for that purpose. It implies, moreover, that the property and liberty of all men, not merely of a majority, should be safe; for the people, or public, comprehends more than a majority, it comprehends all and every individual; and the property of every citizen is a part of the public property, as each citizen is a part of the public, people, or community. The property, therefore, of every man has a share in government, and is more powerful than any citizen, or party of citizens; it is governed only by the law. There is, however, a peculiar sense in which the words republic, commonwealth, popular state, are used by English and French writers; who mean by them a democracy, or rather a representative democracy; a "government in one centre, and that centre the nation;" that is to say, that centre a single assembly, chosen at stated periods by the people, and invested with the whole sovereignty; the whole legislative, executive, and judicial power, to be exercised in a body, or by committees, as they shall think proper. This is the sense in which it was used by Marchamont Nedham, and in this sense it has been constantly used from his time to ours, even by writers of the most mathematical precision, the most classical purity, and extensive learning. What other authority there may be for this use of those words is not known; none has been found, except in the following observations of Portenari, in which there are several other inaccuracies; but they are here inserted, chiefly because they employ the words republic, commonwealth, and popular state, in the same sense with the English and French writers.

"We may say with the philosopher [Aristotle, in the Politics], that six things are so necessary to a city, that without them it cannot stand. 1. The first is provisions, without which its inhabitants cannot live. 2. The second is clothes, habitations, houses, and other things, which depend upon the arts, without which civil and political life cannot subsist. 3. The third is arms, which are necessary to defend the city from its enemies, and to repress the boldness of those who rebel against the laws. 4. The fourth is money, most necessary to a city in peace and in war. 5. The fifth is the care of divine worship. 6. The sixth is the administration of justice, and the government of the people. For the first are necessary, cultivators of the land; for the second, artificers; for the third, soldiers; for the fourth, merchants and capitalists; for the fifth, priests; for the sixth, judges and magistrates. Seven sorts of men, therefore, are necessary to a city: husbandmen, artificers, soldiers, merchants, rich men, priests, and judges.

"But, according to the same philosopher, as in the body natural not all those things, without which it is never found, are parts of it, but only instruments subservient to some uses, as in animals, the horns, the nails, the hair, so not all those seven sorts of men are parts of the city; but some of them, namely, the husbandmen, the artificers, and the merchants, are only instruments useful to civil life, as [Volume 1, Page 120] is thus demonstrated. A city is constituted for felicity, as to its ultimate end; and human felicity, here below, is reposed, according to the same philosopher, in the operations of virtue, and chiefly in the exertions of wisdom and prudence; those men, therefore, are not parts of a city, the operations of whom are not directed to those virtues; such are the husbandmen who are occupied, not in wisdom and prudence, but in laboring the earth; such are the artisans, who fatigue themselves night and day to gain a livelihood for themselves and their poor families; such, finally, are the merchants, who watch and labor continually, not in wisdom and prudence, but in the acquisition of gold. It is therefore clear, that neither husbandmen, artificers, nor merchants, are parts of a city, nor ought to be numbered among the citizens, but only as instruments which subserve certain uses and conveniences of the city."

We must pause here and admire! The foregoing are not only the grave sentiments of Portenari and of Aristotle, but form the doctrine almost of the whole earth, and of all mankind; not only every despotism, empire, and monarchy, in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but every aristocratical republic, has adopted it in all its latitude. There are only two or three of the smallest cantons in Switzerland, besides England, who allow husbandmen, artificers, and merchants, to be citizens, or to have any voice or share in the government of the state, or in the choice or appointment of any who have. There is no doctrine, and no fact, which goes so far as this towards forfeiting to the human species the character of rational creatures. Is it not amazing, that nations should have thus tamely surrendered themselves, like so many flocks of sheep, into the hands of shepherds, whose great solicitude to devour the lambs, the wool, and the flesh, scarcely leave them time to provide water or pasture for the animals, or even shelter against the weather and the wolves?

It is, indeed, impossible that the several descriptions of men, last enumerated, should, in a great nation and extensive territory, ever assemble in a body to act in concert; and the ancient method of taking the sense of an assembly of citizens in the capital, as in Rome for example, for the sense of all the citizens of a whole republic, or a large empire, was very imperfect, and extremely exposed to corruption; but, since the invention of representative assemblies, much of that objection is removed, though even that was no sufficient reason for excluding farmers, merchants, and artificers, from the rights of citizens. At present a husbandman, merchant, or artificer, provided he has any small property, by which he may be supposed to have a judgment and will of his own, instead of depending for his daily bread on some patron or master, is a sufficient judge of the qualifications of a person to represent him in the legislature. A representative assembly, fairly constituted, and made an integral part of the sovereignty, has power forever to control the rich and illustrious in another assembly, and a court and king, where there is a king. This, too, is the only instrument by which the body of the people can act; the only way in which their opinions can be known and collected; the only means by which their wills can be united, and their strength exerted, according to any principle or continued system.

It is sometimes said, that mobs are a good mode of expressing the sense, the resentments, and feelings of the people. Whig mobs to be sure are meant! But if the principle is once admitted, liberty and the rights of mankind will infallibly be betrayed; for it is giving liberty to tories and courtiers to excite mobs as well as to patriots; and all history and experience shows, that mobs are more easily excited by courtiers and princes, than by more virtuous men, and more honest friends of liberty.

It is often said, too, that farmers, merchants, and mechanics, are too inattentive to public affairs, and too patient under oppression. This is undoubtedly true, and will forever be so; and, what is worse, the most sober, industrious, and peaceable of them, will forever be the least attentive, and the least disposed to exert themselves in hazardous and disagreeable efforts of resistance. The only practicable method, therefore, of giving to farmers, &c. the equal right of citizens, and their proper weight and influence in society, is by elections, frequently repeated, of a house of commons, an assembly which shall be an essential part of the sovereignty. The meanest understanding is equal to the duty of saying who is the man in his neighborhood whom he most esteems, and loves best, for his knowledge, integrity, and benevolence. The understandings, however, of husbandmen, merchants, and mechanics, are not always the meanest; there arise, in the course of human life, many among them of the most splendid geniuses, the most active and benevolent dispositions, and most undaunted bravery. The moral equality that nature has unalterably established among men, gives these an undoubted right to have every road opened to them for advancement in life and in power that is open to any others. These are the characters which will be discovered in popular elections, and brought forward upon the stage, where they may exert all their faculties, and enjoy all the honors, offices, and commands, both in peace and war, of which they are capable. The dogma of Aristotle, and the practice of the world, is the most unphilosophical, the most inhuman and cruel that can be conceived. Until this wicked position, which is worse than the slavery of the ancient republics, or modern West Indies, shall be held up to the derision and contempt, the execration and horror, of mankind, it will be to little purpose to talk or write about liberty. This doctrine of Aristotle is the more extraordinary, as it seems to be inconsistent with his great and common principles, "that a happy life must arise from a course of virtue; that virtue consists in a medium; and that the middle life is the happiest.

"In every city the people are divided into three sorts, the very rich, the very poor, and the middle sort. If it is admitted that the medium is the best, it follows that, even in point of fortune, a mediocrity is preferable. The middle state is most compliant to reason. Those who are very beautiful, or strong, or noble, or rich, or, on the contrary, those who are very poor, weak, or mean, with difficulty obey reason. The former are capricious and flagitious; the latter, rascally and mean; the crimes of each arising from their different excesses. Those who excel in riches, friends, and influence, are not willing to submit to command or law; this begins at home, where they are brought [Volume 1, Page 121] up too delicately, when boys, to obey their preceptors. The constant want of what the rich enjoy makes the poor too mean; the poor know not how to command, but are in the habit of being commanded, too often as slaves. The rich know not how to submit to any command; nor do they know how to rule over freemen, or to command others, but despotically. A city composed only of the rich and the poor, consists but of masters and slaves, not freemen; where one party despise, and the other hate; where there is no possibility of friendship, or political community, which supposes affection. It is the genius of a free city to be composed, as much as possible, of equals; and equality will be best preserved when the greatest part of the inhabitants are in the middle state. These will be best assured of safety as well as equality; they will not covet nor steal, as the poor do, what belongs to the rich; nor will what they have be coveted or stolen; without plotting against any one, or having any one plot against them, they will live free from danger. For which reason, Phocylides wisely wishes for the middle state, as being most productive of happiness. It is plain then that the most perfect community must be among those who are in the middle rank; and those states are best instituted, wherein these are a larger and more respectable part, if possible, than both the other; or, if that cannot be, at least than either of them separate; so that, being thrown into the balance, it may prevent either scale from preponderating. It is, therefore, the greatest happiness which the citizen can enjoy, to possess a moderate and convenient fortune. When some possess too much, and others nothing at all, the government must either be in the hands of the meanest rabble, or else a pure oligarchy. The middle state is best, as being least liable to those seditions and insurrections which disturb the community; and for the same reason extensive governments are least liable to these inconveniences; for there those in the middle state are very numerous; whereas, in small ones, it is easy to pass to the two extremes, so as hardly to have any medium remaining, but the one half rich, and the other poor. We ought to consider, as a proof of this, that the best lawgivers were those in the middle rank of life, among whom was Solon, as is evident from his poems, and Lycurgus, for he was not a king; and Charondas, and, indeed, most others. Hence, so many free states have changed either to democracies or oligarchies; for whenever the number of those in the middle state has been too small, those who were the more numerous, whether the rich or the poor, always overpowered them, and assumed to themselves the administration. When, in consequence of their disputes and quarrels with each other, either the rich get the better of the poor, or the poor of the rich, neither of them will establish a free state, but, as a record of their victory, will form one which inclines to their own principles, either a democracy or an oligarchy. It is, indeed, an established custom of cities, not to desire an equality, but either to aspire to govern, or, when they are conquered, to submit."

These are some of the wisest sentiments of Aristotle; but can you reconcile them with his other arbitrary doctrine, and tyrannical exclusion of husbandmen, merchants, and tradesmen, from the rank and rights of citizens? These, or at least, those of them who have acquired property enough to be exempt from daily dependence on others, are the real middling people, and generally as honest and independent as any; these, however, it must be confessed, are too inattentive to public and national affairs, and too apt to submit to oppression. When they have been provoked beyond all bearing, they have aimed at demolishing the government, and when they have done that, they have sunk into their usual inattention, and left others to erect a new one as rude and ill-modelled as the former. A representative assembly, elected by them, is the only way in which they can act in concert; but they have always allowed themselves to be cheated by false, imperfect, partial, and inadequate representations of themselves, and have never had their full and proper share of power in a state.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 4, Document 10
The University of Chicago Press

The Works of John Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850--56. See also: Butterfield; Cappon; Warren-Adams Letters

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000